The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing, Part One

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment One: The Story is thy highest goal, thou shalt not have any goals before it

When I first decided to pursue writing seriously, I had a lot of reasons and goals motivating me, but honestly it boiled down to one of each: 

  • Reason: I thought I was pretty good at writing. 
  • Goal: To achieve some level of recognition beyond my friends and family.

Both of those are still true (otherwise what the hell would I be doing this for?), but as I've studied my craft, a more important goal became my driving force, and that was simply to tell stories

When it comes down to it, the desire to tell a story is the only pure motivation to set yourself to the task of writing. It's the only pure goal you can strive for. Any other driving force inevitably clouds the story, and the story is what the readers come for. 

It's important to be humble, and not let your ego cloud your judgement. Ego is the driving force behind purple prose, confusing narrative, condescending tone, and a whole host of other problems that drive people away from books. It's important to remember why people read. 

People read books because they like stories. 

Sure, there are a host of subtler reasons augmenting that, but at the heart, that's all people want. If a story makes them think, or takes them on flights of poetic fancy, that's just a bonus. They come for the story, they stay for the rest.

So in writing, you have to put the story first. Every decision should be made by asking "Does it make the story easier or harder to experience?" (it's the Path of Least Resistance again). Anything that creates more work between the reader and the story leads them to put the book down. Even dedicated bookworms are subconsciously looking for reasons to put a book down. 

You can't expect readers to make excuses for you (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!). You can't expect readers to assume that slogging through your overwrought, byzantine prose will somehow prove worthwhile. You can't expect readers to follow a haphazard, confusing narrative because it means something to you. Of course it means something to you. But have you ever read a book because the author deserved it? I sure haven't. I only read books because I want to

There are exceptions, sure. After all, people read David Foster Wallace, and he's the most arrogant, condescending writer to ever walk the Earth. But don't be so naive as to think that a book must be challenging in order to make people think, or garner critical praise. It's just not true. If you're involved with the reading community, you'll find that popular fiction has provoked more thoughts in more people than any piece of literary fiction ever has. Sure, they're not teaching The Hunger Games in college literature classes (not yet, anyway), and Suzanne Collins may not be James Joyce, but when you measure the effect on the world, it's hard to argue that The Hunger Games didn't matter, or didn't affect the way people feel and think. 

Let me illustrate this with an analogy. People don't listen to music to be impressed. People listen to music because they like they way it makes them feel. If the artist is technically accomplished, that's great. If not, it doesn't really matter, so long as the music makes people feel the way they want to feel. If music listeners were driven primarily by technical ability, artists like Yngwie Malmsteen would be the best-selling and most critically praised in the world: 

Did any of you watch that video past the one minute mark? I'm betting you didn't. You heard him start wailing, and you were like "okay, I get it", and then you hit pause. Or you let it play, but resumed reading this article. Doesn't that prove my point?

Luckily, it's possible to be technically accomplished and keep the focus on the story. In fact, if you want to be widely read and highly regarded, you've got to have it both ways. You have to find a way to craft a story that people don't have to fight their way into, and you have to let the story do the teaching, not you. 

Don't stand in the way of your story by stopping it in its tracks to deliver a lecture about how 19th-century English society is organized. Don't lecture to readers about the genealogy of every character's horses. Don't indulge your poetic side describing a sunset while we're waiting to see what someone will do. Because in the end, readers don't remember that stuff. Readers remember characters doing things.

Don't write a book just to make some political or philosophical argument. While its true that narrative is an excellent way to put ideas across (because it shows those ideas in action, rather than just telling them), if your whole story is just an excuse to get on the soap box, readers are going to feel lied to. Readers open a book because they think you want to tell them a story. But if all you really want to do is influence their thoughts, they'll know it. Stories can change the way people think, but you have to let the story do the teaching, not you.

And this last bit should go without saying, but don't write a book to get rich and famous. Don't write a book out of some vain hope that it will get made into a movie. That's working backwards from an imaginary future. Sound like a healthy M.O.? 

If wealth and fame is all you're after, you're in the wrong business. There are maybe a dozen people who get rich and famous off of writing in a given decade (actually, I think that figure is pretty generous). The odds are hilariously stacked against you, so making that your main goal is a recipe for bitterness. But that doesn't mean the trade isn't worthwhile for other reasons. Writing should be its own reward, just as experiencing a story should. Anything that gets in the way of that is unfair to the reader, and torturous to the writer. 

So just tell a story, and let the chips fall where they may. You'll be happier for it.